Although some would say, “a just turned 14-year-old is an obvious candidate for an abortion,” the teenager wanted a baby. She did everything she could to stay pregnant – including following doctor’s orders to lie flat on her back in bed the last four months before the infant’s birth.
But once she had a squalling infant in her arms, reality hit and the still 14-year-old handed the baby’s care over to an older woman who had helped raise her. The young mother quickly scurried back into the life of an American teenager and – except for the times she was paid to babysit her own child – kept track of her child only from a distance. When drugs entered the home of the acting mother, she took the now pre-school aged child away and accepted another relative’s offer to care for the bright-eyed, little brunette.
That was when this engaging child entered my life. I loved her and would have taken her home with me in a heart beat. But our oldest son and his wife had dibs, so we settled for counting her as one of our grandchildren – as did her grandmother Oma from Holland – and grandfather Opa, a World War II decorated POW survivor. They lived close enough to invite her over every couple weeks to spend the night.
As grandparents, we loved the child and watched with amusement as her great-aunt and uncle carried her around long after most children ran ahead of the adults. We listened to their fears that the maturing birth mother would want her daughter to return and live with her permanently – especially after she married and had more children. If nothing else, the mother could have used her daughter’s extra pair of hands.
At times my son and daughter-in-love anxiously held their breath, fearful that this child they called their third daughter would not be able to continue to live with them. But even when she left for a while, always, for one reason or another, she returned to their home and care.
As she reached an age when family courts recognize a child’s expressed preference in living arrangements, son and daughter-in-love began talking about finalizing the decisions mother, child and unofficial guardians had made time and again over the years. They began talking about adoption.
Then the emotional reality of her situation slammed down hard on the child. In middle school, her aunt and uncle struggled to keep her focused on her studies and to keep her grades above C-level. Grappling to understand everything that had happened to her in 11 years, the pre-teen slid further behind. Her unofficial, but permanent guardians, insisted – over the teacher’s objections – that she repeat sixth grade. They thought she needed it, if for no other reason than to give her time to catch up with herself.
The teachers did not agree, the school did not agree, but looking at her grades and the confusion of that last year in middle school and looking ahead to the demands of junior high, her for-all-practical purposes parents decided that this bright, gifted child just needed a break.
They made her repeat the grade. She began resolving the conflicting issues of her personal history. Her grades improved as she assumed responsibility for her studies.
The next year, she entered seventh grade and came into her own. She again made grades reflective of her ability. She found extra-curricular activities and loved the challenge of the new school environment.
At the close of school this year, a lot of details came together to begin the process of making her a permanent member of the Hershberger family. Hearing it would be an uncontested adoption, the lawyer assured them the paperwork would be no problem – the legal rituals would be minimal.
We called them a lot, mostly just to ask “How’s the adoption coming along?”
It took two months. It seemed like forever.
Labor Day weekend, during a family reunion camp-out in the Smoky Mountains, we held a welcoming ceremony to officially accept the newest Hershberger into the family. Her adoptive mother says she acts a bit like me at times. Which I take to mean she fits right into the family – but then, we all always knew that this child belonged with us – we were just waiting to have that truth legally recognized.
(Grandmother of 13, Joan Hershberger is a reporter at the News-Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org)